“Ich bin ein Hamburger”

Remember JFK’s famous line as he spoke in Berlin, “Ich bin ein Berliner”? Well, he endeared himself at once, because he said he was a pastry. Basically, I just said I was a hamburger – a very bad translation. But I can say I have left my heart – or at least a chunk of it – in the city of Hamburg, Germany.

I transferred to a different high school in eleventh grade, because it had a great art program. Since I had not yet earned my foreign language credits, I had to choose among Spanish – no, my brother was taking that,  French – no, too sissy, or German. Ok, German it is. My first day of class I was mesmerized by Dr. Love, the teacher. We saw a short film about skiing in Switzerland, and afterward the teacher came around introducing herself and asking us our names in German. I had never heard such a hideous language – TOTALLY COOL! I was hooked.

I labeled everything in my room at home, then expanded the labels to other objects in the house. My mom found one in her shoe one day. I checked out tapes from the library. I couldn’t wait for class each day. Perpetually with my hand up to answer questions, I grew impatient that other kids needed to participate also, even Butch, who came to class stoned almost every day.

Class was never dull. “Frau” Love was a chain-smoking, coffee-addicted, cock-eyed, diabetic. We never knew exactly whom she was calling on, because her eyes were looking at two different students. Occasionally, while sitting at her desk, her speech would slur, her eyes roll back, and her head would drop onto the desk. That was the cue for one of us to run to the cafeteria (next door) for some orange juice and another to race to the office. We succeeded every time in bringing her out of her diabetic coma.

That year, I tried out for a scholarship to study in Germany. I didn’t get it. It came down to me and the sister of my best friend. Her grade point average was a fraction higher, so she ended up getting it. I was crushed.

The next year, I tried again. So, in July of 1986, I found myself waving joyfully at my parents from the plane’s window as they both cried. I was on my way to Hamburg, to the Fitschen family, a name on the exchange student paperwork.

Little did I know how this would affect my life.

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